Avalanche beacons : essential for off-piste skiing
Any powder enthusiast is sure to have heard of avalanche beacons, also known as avalanche victim detectors (AVD), beacons or transceivers. For those not so familiar with these devices, a beacon emits a signal so that victims buried in an avalanche can be found and rescued more quickly. Originally developed for military forces, ski patrollers and armies in the 1960s, transceivers are now essential kit for off-piste skiing. Both amateurs and experts are now in the habit of using a beacon, irrespective of their level of skill. In fact, the use of avalanche safety devices has largely become commonplace over the past years, more or less simultaneously with the arrival of ski touring. Transceivers are complex devices, however, and customers continue to ask numerous questions. For example, what is the difference between an AVD and an ARVA ? We have the answer to this question, and are happy to provide all essential information you should now about avalanche beacons.
AVD or ARVA : what's the difference ?
AVD and ARVA are both acronyms: where AVD stands for avalanche victim detector and ARVA is a French acronym to denote an avalanche victim search device. However, ARVA is also the registered name of our brand, which is why the abbreviation AVD, but also avalanche transceiver and avalanche beacon are the generic terms commonly used by all parties in the industry. In practice, these acronyms describe the same device... and therefore the same function! To eliminate confusion, we call our devices transceivers and beacons. This article describes how a transceiver works, so you can better understand how to use it.
Avalanche beacons : functionality
Wondering how a transceiver works ? The principle is simple and is based on radio frequencies. Transceivers have two different modes: send and search. They send and receive a radio signal on 457 kHz frequency, the global standard. This frequency has the capacity to travel through water-logged substances, such as an avalanche, and their range depends on the model.
Before setting out on a trip, at the same time as putting on their skis, persons with a transceiver must always switch it into send mode. With the Group Check function, you can make sure that your transceiver can be detected by the others in your group. The ideal place to carry a transceiver is in the chest holster. Trouser and jacket pockets can be damaged in an avalanche, so that you lose the transceiver. It is important to keep your transceiver in send mode throughout your trip.
If you are witness to an avalanche, you simply switch the transceiver into search mode to help find the persons buried. The transceiver will in general emit visual and audio signals to guide you to the burials. Although all transceivers have the same operating principle, not all offer the same functionality and characteristics. Not sure which transceiver to choose ? Let us guide you !
Avalanche transceivers : which ARVA model to choose ?
Analog or digital, number of antennas, search range or even Bluetooth connection : explore the characteristics and most important differences among transceivers.
Analog or digital beacon
Up to the 1990s, beacons were analog. Analog beacons only emitted audio signals, with a beep getting stronger as you got closer to the transmitting beacon. With time, manufacturers suggested digital beacons to allow for more rapid and efficient searches. These transceivers came with a screen displaying the direction to take to reach the burial, but also an indication of progress in relation to the remaining distance. In addition to these visual indications, the new beacons also emitted an supplementary sound signal. Today, the vast majority of beacons on the avalanche safety equipment market are digital. However, some models combine a digital and analog mode, and these are suitable for persons who work with mountain safety. Switching to analog mode provides increased search width in deep burial situations. On the other hand, purely analog beacons, now seen as obsolete, have not been on sale for many years and frequently have low compatibility or are incompatible with current digital beacons. However, there are some models that allow you to switch between analog and digital mode according to your needs. One example is the NEO BT PRO, which offers analog mode in addition to digital mode for a wider search range in the event of a major avalanche. In addition to digital functionality, the number of antennas plays a significant role in transceiver efficiency. We can explain why !
Avalanche beacons : number of antennas
Having one, two or even three antennas allows the beacon to indicate the direction to take to find a burial. The main antenna, referred to as the Y antenna, is the longest and is used to broadcast the signal when in send mode, and to offer a search range in search mode. The second antenna, referred to as the X antenna, provides an indication of the direction towards the burial. The first beacons only had these two antennas, quickly supplemented by a third antenna allowing better control of burial depth. The third antenna provides the option of indicating the vertical distance between the burial and the rescuer in fine search mode. This eliminates the phenomenon of double spike, also known as false maxima - where, with certain configurations and a device with one or two antennas, the rescuer may locate two different sites, particularly if the burial is very deep.
The new generation of transceivers therefore systematically offers three antennas, and these are much more reliable for locating burials. As you will have understood, the vast majority of beacons are now digital with three antennas. You may still find it difficult to differentiate between the different models according to the factors above, but there is one characteristic that is distinctive with each model and can differ greatly between transceivers : the effective range and search strip width.
Avalanche beacons : effective range and search strip width
The effective range corresponds to the distance up to which a beacon in search mode can detect another beacon in send mode. This effective range extends on either side of the rescuer, so that the search strip width is two times the effective range.
And it goes without saying that the higher the effective range, the easier it is to detect the burial. Our new NEO BT PRO is quite simply the best beacon in 2023 from this point of view, as it offers the largest search strip width on the market: 80 meters. Along with these technical features, a new function has now appeared on the transceiver market, and that is Bluetooth connection. Interference management, usefulness and advantages : we have everything you need to know about the new Bluetooth connection.
Avalanche beacons and Bluetooth connection
Before describing Bluetooth connection, we need to remind you of a few factors when it comes to interference management. Remember that when your beacon is in send mode (generally the norm), you must keep your smartphone at a distance of 20 cm from the transceiver to avoid interference. When in search mode, your smartphone should be farther away, at 50 cm.
Bluetooth connection is not used during ski trips or when searching for burials. It comes into its own, however, when you are back home. If we take the NEO BT PRO for example, Bluetooth connection to the ARVA app allows you to carry out updates, to configure your preferences such as the choice of fine search distance, or even to practice searching for avalanche burials. Bluetooth connection is therefore a valuable added feature that allows you to personalize your device, but also helps you practice and gain control of your transceiver. Speaking of control : let us show you or simply remind you of how to use your beacon in a search situation.
Avalanche beacons : how to use them
Transceivers : avalanche search methods
Before starting to search for a burial, the person(s) setting out on the search must switch their beacons into search mode and must notify the emergency services.
Preliminary search or signal search
The aim during the preliminary phase is to obtain the signal from the beacon of the buried victim. Look out for signs on the ground, such as gloves or poles that might have come to the surface to help you get on the right track. Cross the area in successive strips over the entire width covered by the avalanche. As a general rule, the recommended crossing width is 20 meters, sufficient in most cases to sweep the entire area.
The coarse search phase
Once a signal has been detected, your device takes over and shows you the direction to follow. You can monitor the distance indicator to make sure it is decreasing, so you know you are on the right track. When the distance is indicated as 10 on your screen, reduce your speed to walking pace to avoid going too fast and missing the victim.
The final search phase is known as fine search, and starts when your device shows a distance of 3.0. If you haven't already done so, take off your skis and place your transceiver level with the snow, parallel. Make a cross from your starting point, without exceeding a radius of two meters. Once you have found the smallest distance, make sure to mark the spot as quickly as possible with an object (glove, hat, etc.) before taking out your probe. You can now start on the probing and then shoveling phases. As stress can make these search phases difficult, it is important to practice search situations.
Avalanche beacons : training and practicing search techniques
Get regular practice of the different search phases with your transceiver. Our ARVA app allows you to review or update your avalanche knowledge thanks to our Snow Safety Program, but you can also use it for practice in many different scenarios.
Access the Snow Safety Program online
Discover the ARVA app
Practicing how to use your beacon is important, but so are your shovel and probe techniques. The beacon, shovel and probe trio is essential for effective searches.
Avalanche beacons : the transceiver-shovel-probe package is a must-have
Our ARVA packages come with a beacon, shovel and probe so you have a complete high-quality set of equipment.
Which beacon-shovel-probe kit should you choose for your practice ?
The beacon-shovel-probe kit for professional patrollers, guides and mountain rescuers
With the NEO BT PRO, a Guide 260 probe and an axe shovel, this pack Safety Box Pro is the ideal ARVA avalanche safety pack for mountain professionals.
The beacon-shovel-probe pack for novices to intermediate ski tourers
The EVO4 packcomprises our best-selling EVO4, and our shovel and probe from the Access range. The EVO5 pack contains our most compact transceiver, our Spark 240 probe and our Access telescopic shovel.
The beacon-shovel-probe pack for ski mountaineering, competitions and trips
Equipped with the shovel and probe from the Ski trip range and the EVO5, this ARVA Skitrip avalanche pack perfectly meets the needs of travel-loving amateur skiers thanks to its incredible compactness and light weight. No matter what transceiver model you choose, make sure to remember the maintenance tips below to extend the lifetime of your device.
Avalanche beacons : maintenance advice
Between trips and seasons, store your device in a temperate, dry place out of direct sunlight. At the end of the winter, remove the battery for long-term storage. Regularly check your device, in particular the correct mechanical operation of the OFF/SEND/SEARCH selector, the condition of the screen and check for corrosion in the battery compartment. Finally, make sure you do not use rechargeable batteries. To ensure that your device is in good working order, it is recommended to check your device every three years for normal use (between 20 and 60 trips per season). For professionals, annual checks are required. More information about servicing
Find your ARVA beacon on our website
EVO4, EVO5, NEO BT PRO: find the best beacon for you and the way you go skiing or snowboarding. You can also explore our ARVA packs with transceiver, shovel and probe, so that you have the best avalanche safety equipment for your winter expeditions. Don't forget to complete your equipment with an ARVA airbag backpack ! Read more about our REACTOR system and get yourself the lightest airbag backpack on the market.